Turn kids into ‘birdbrains’ as fliers come back from winter homes

How to get children outside to track returning migratory birds

Most kids are probably still feeling plenty of winter, but it’s a different story for migrating birds. As winter starts to transition to spring across the United States, warmer temperatures bring the return of many migratory species. And stealthy kids who keep their eyes on feeders, open water, coastlines, city parks, and other green spaces can get a sneak peek of what’s to come.

As birds’ incredible sensory systems start detecting subtle changes in the length of the days as well as the temperature, they’ll start migrating back from their southern homes in search of better feeding and breeding opportunities, says Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and bird migration expert.

Some species will begin returning as early as February and March, a perfect time for kids to get outside—especially after the past year.

“We’ve been in this situation with quarantine for about a year,” says biologist J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University and author of birding books, essays, and poetry. “It’s important to find something new and get excited about it. Treat it as a shared adventure.”

Lanham adds that bird watching does more than just get kids outside. “Birding teaches kids empathy,” he says. “It helps kids understand that they share the same world and air and water and soil. When kids get involved in birding and nature, it means moving toward empathy and caring.”

What kids will see

As the weather gets warmer, kids can expect to see new birds nearly every day. The sheer numbers are staggering. Farnsworth estimates that between 2.5 to 3.5 billion birds migrate into the United States during the average spring migration. Many of them travel great distances across the country and are returning from as far south as South America, the Caribbean, and Central America.

“Birds may stay in a spot for a day or even less,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of turnover during migration,”

For example, some species—like the Arctic tern—travel 6,000 to 9,000 miles on a single trip, while robins and blackbirds may travel less than 60 miles, he says.

This transitional season is mating season, which brings all sorts of behavioral changes. For instance, kids might observe that birds are much more active than at other times of the year. Males might be chasing rivals away as they search for mates, and females might be avoiding said males. The birds might also be hunting prey.

“As the temperature gets warmer each day, more insects are available,” Lanham says. “Birds need insects for protein, so there’s less activity at the feeder.”

Farnsworth says big flocks of birds like blackbirds and grackles will also begin to get smaller as winter fades. That’s because birds are pairing up with mates that they’ll remain with until they finish breeding.

Kids might also see that the way birds look will change during mating season. Birds with brilliant plumage—including waterfowl, finches, tanagers, and warblers—brighten up the skies, Farnsworth says. Male birds in particular don vibrant colors to attract mates, and after the season ends, their colors become more muted. For example, male American goldfinches change from dull grays and olives to shades of yellow and black. Likewise, male mallards, distinguished by their striking green heads in the spring, then transition to more drab colors during summer so they’re less visible to predators.


How to see them

Farnsworth advises parents to keep in mind that each region of the U.S. will see different birds. For instance, during early migration, short-distance travelers like red-winged blackbirds begin to return north from the southern part of the country. He adds that long-distance fliers like tree swallows gather near marshes and open country, while killdeer and American robins can be spotted feeding on land in wet, open areas. (The National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America can help kids identify their local fliers.)

As snow cover melts in some regions, birds will be looking for green spaces and open water, Farnsworth says, adding that young birders should also check the trees. “Big trees, like oaks, have caterpillars that birds target,” he says. “Get to know your trees, tangles, and microhabitats.” 

Many birds are often active in the early morning when they’re hunting for insects, according to Jessie Barry of the Cornell Lab. But kids might get a different show at night. In fact, Farnsworth says between 400 to 500 million birds might be aloft on a single evening. “They travel at night to minimize predation and loss of energy,” he says. “They can avoid the high temperatures and the sun and minimize flight turbulence at night.”

8 birding activities to try with your kids

Whether your child is an expert birder or just getting started, plenty of creative ideas can get them excited about spotting and attracting birds during spring migration.

Backyard field guide. Write down backyard observations and make sketches or paintings of birds and their habitats in a notebook. Record the time and date for each entry to get a sense of their migration patterns over days, months, or years. 

Outdoor safari. See how long your child can sit still to observe the migrating birds. Be stealthy, quiet, and observant. Wear clothes that blend in with the habitat—whether it’s in your backyard or local park. Pay attention to hatches of insects like black flies, winged ants, and other tasty bugs that birds like to feast on during their stopovers and at their final destinations.

I Spy. Walk around your yard, neighborhood, or local park and play the guessing game. Bring a pair of binoculars to get a closer, more detailed look at birds.

Compare and contrast. Ask kids to list ways the birds they see are different and alike. Lanham suggests this activity can help kids understand that all living creatures share certain characteristics, which cultivates empathy and conservation values.

DIY water feeder. Lanham says because water is often frozen in the transitional season, making fresh water available can help attract birds. He suggests filling a flowerpot tray with fresh water or buying an inexpensive bubbler fountain to keep the water moving. (Here’s a birdbath craft using old planters.)

Alphabet games. Try to find a bird for each letter of the alphabet: American robin, blue jay, Canada goose, etc. Consider using an app like Merlin Bird ID to help kids learn names and identify both local and visiting birds.

Color in the calendar. Color in the day of a calendar with the color of a bird you see outside, Lanham says. For example, a cardinal would be red, a goldfinch would be yellow, and so on.

Tune in. Even if kids don’t always see the birds, they’ll likely hear their songs and calls, which they use to attract mates, establish territory, and communicate with each other. Check out the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s song identification guide to North American bird songs and sounds, and listen to the differences between hoots, trills, whinnies, squawks, whistles, and more.

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